Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
With 5:30 left in the first half, the North Olmsted Eagles had visiting Westlake Demons right where they wanted them.
On a well-executed give-and-go play, Jason Brent took a pass from Sean Needles, then hit him cutting down the lane for a layup. With the score 16-16, the Orange and Black looked like they might have a shot at breaking their Southwestern Conference winless streak.
That outlook changed drastically over the next 5:26.
After a chat with head coach Shawn Hood durning a timeout, the Demons went on a 15-3 run to close out the half. The onslaught continued in the third quarter as the Demons left town with a convincing 64-34 win Friday night.
“We needed to play with high energy. We needed to play with hunger,” said Hood, whose team was coming off a tough 61-58 loss to Berea.
“I didn’t think that anything needed to be done strategically,” Hood said of his rare first-half timeout. “I knew that since we beat them pretty good at our place that they would have the psychological edge tonight.
“I wanted to see if we could overcome that,” he added.
The little extra coaxing paid off.
Up to that point, Westlake had led by no more than five points, with North Olmsted actually having the lead at one point, 9-8, in the first quarter. But after Needles’ bucket, the Demons snapped out of their first-half doldrums and went to work.
Shawn Turk hit a driving jumper from the right side, then 6-8 junior Gavin Skelly scored on two-straight offensive rebounds for a 22-16 Demon lead. Skelly then kept things rolling with a steal at half court for his third-straight score.
In the meantime, the Eagles’ big man, 6-7 Billy Lucien, went to the bench with his third foul. Another turnover, one of 12 in the half for the home team, kept the Westlake run in gear. The Demons misfired on some free throws, but Bryan Mackenzie followed up with five-straight points of his own to make it 29-16, Demons.
North Olmsted momentarily stopped the bleeding when Jordan Wolfe hit the front end of a one-and-one, then Ivan Velasquez scored on an offensive stickback. But Westlake’s Josef Hadib-Nissan scored on a backside cut to give the Demons a 31-19 halftime lead.
“At the time, our fans and our bench didn’t seem like they were too much into the game,” Hood said. “Our kids had to reach within themselves to find the energy, and I though we did at the end of the first half and into the second.”
Westlake came out with a 17-5 run to open the third quarter and never looked back. Skelly was a big part of the run, scoring 11 points and grabbing four rebounds. He started the run with a pair of free throws and made it 48-24 on yet another offensive rebound.
North Olmsted suffered another blow early on when Needles left the game with an injury in the first minute of play. The Eagles managed just five baskets in the second half, not nearly enough to mount any kind of comeback.
“Westlake is so good defensively,” said Eagles head coach Joe Smith, whose team fell to 1-16 on the season and 0-12 in the SWC.
“They’re probably the best defensive team we’ve faced this year, and we struggled to score.” Smith said. “But if we’re not reversing the ball, trying to run good offense and settling for the first shot that comes our way, we’re not going to score...no matter who we’re playing against.
“You put that up against a team that’s really good defensively, and you see why we had a hard time scoring tonight,” he added.
With a 16-5 fourth quarter, Westlake was able to finish the game on a strong note and get its bench some extra playing time. Senior Tyler Zack made an appearance, topping off the Demons’ night with a 3-pointer with 1:05 remaining.
For the game, Skelly led all scorers with 20 points while grabbing eight rebounds. Mackenzie had 10 points, while Jamie Lackner and Connor Meek each chipped in with eight. Lackner also had a good night on the glass with seven rebounds.
“What I like about Gavin’s game tonight was that he was active,” Hood said. “That’s what I tell him, that I want him to be active. He’s very difficult to guard when he’s playing that way, and I thought he did that in the second half.
“As a result, we ran better offense as a team. It’s not a coincidence,” he added.
Lucien led the Eagles with 10 points, while Needles finished with seven points and seven rebounds before leaving the game. Friday night also marked the first varsity start for freshman point guard Kyle Wapshot.
“We haven’t had a freshman on varsity here at North Olmsted for, I’d say, 20 to 24 years,” said Smith, who was without the services of injured guards Jah-Haile Tyler and Brandon Dickey.
“It was his third varsity game, but he played big minutes tonight,” Smith said. “I don’t know what his stat line was, but what he does well is handle the ball against pressure. He plays with a lot of composure. He’s going to be a good player for us.”
Westlake, now 13-5 overall and 8-4 in the SWC, will face conference-leading Brecksville next Friday night, then host Lorain in a non-conference game on Saturday. Hood talked about what his team needed to accomplish heading down the stretch and into tournament play.
“We need more defensive balance,” Hood explained.
“We have problems with good, quick guards who can do things on their own. That’s what happened to us in the Berea game and against Elyria and Brecksville.
“We need to see that, it and won’t be from us playing zone. Danny Strodtbeck does a nice job for us, but I’m looking for some other guards to step up and get that done for us,” he added.